Clyde Reid, a Whale Watch volunteer (an Oregon State Parks program), cautioned that the Cape Lookout hike is not for the faint of heart.
“It’s not an easy walk! It’s a bit of a scramble, so you should wear layers of warm and water/wind resistant clothing and sensible shoes – I’ve seen people out there in flip-flops and cut offs and that’s not a good idea.”
The trail courses the full length of the cape and while it is fairly flat there is a slight gradient drop which means it’s slightly uphill all the back out to the parking area.
It’s a five mile round trip and you should allow up to four hours of hiking to complete the entire trip.
It is also muddy in spots and marked by steep drop-offs.
Each spring, the trail is flanked by one of the most prolific stretches of blooming trillium you’ll ever see. Many other colorful wildflower species are also at hand in a forest of old growth fir, spruce, and hemlock trees.
Along the way, be sure to keep the binoculars easy to reach and ready for anything.
On our adventure, we spied eagles, lounging harbor seals and thousands of murres, (a common sea bird) floating on the ocean surface far below.
At end of the line, you will discover why many call Cape Lookout the “best seat of the house” to watch the gray whale parade that goes past Oregon’s shores each spring.
There is not other experience along the Oregon coastline quite like this for whale watching; not only are the giants of the deep passing by seemingly just out of reach – but many of the 60-foot long mammals detour around the cape’s southern flanks where they lounge about, resting and feeding before continuing their ten thousand mile journeys.
Gray whales left warm Baja lagoons weeks ago and now they are bound for the cold, productive waters of Alaska’s Bering Sea.
Reid said that your best chance to spy them is when they rise to the surface to take a breath and mark the moment with their “blow” or exhale.
“It’s not a water spout as many think,” said Reid. “It’s a big cloud of compressed CO2. These animals are the size of school busses and they have lungs the size of refrigerators. There’s no mistaking it.”
Here’s a hint that may help you to find the whales faster too: scan the ocean with your naked eye, looking for the tell tale blow. Once you see that, focus in with binoculars to get a good close up look.
Reid added, “You might see their backs, might even see their flukes or tail when they dive to go deep. That’s always exciting.”
Even more exciting (and a bit rare) is a breech when the giants seem to fly out of the water.
Local coastal landscape and wildlife photographer, Don Best, was ready for that dramatic moment with his camera, tripod and a 500mm telephoto lens.
In his photos he likes to show the true size of the animal – how does he do it?
“How do I get that perfect shot?” Best quickly fired back. “Oh, that’s easy – patience, patience and more patience. You have to be looking at just the right spot at just the right moment – so it takes real concentration not to look away. I don’t always get that good shot right away and I take many, many pictures for just the right one, but that’s the beauty of digital cameras.”
Gray whales swim up to one hundred miles a day and most rarely stop to rest so hurry to the coast and especially Cape Lookout and do it soon before their show is gone.
“Even if you didn’t have a camera, this is a great place to come,” added longtime photographer, Don Best.
Reid nodded in agreement as another whale surfaced just offshore and noted: “It’s just really fun! When you can get so close to a wild animal the size of a school bus it’s really great. That’s probably why there are more than a thousand Oregon State Park’s Whale Watch volunteers up and down the coast. It’s a fun way to spend your time.”
Most of us never give our travels or adventures into the great Oregon outdoors a second thought.
After all, for most of us there are countless exciting opportunities for varied adventures and destinations with few barriers to get in the way.
But what if the challenge of simply “getting there” was huge, even monumental – so much so that it was far easier to just throw in the towel and stay home never to experience Oregon’s many sights and sounds at all?
John Williams would like the change that perspective.
Williams is a familiar voice to many – he plays the soft rock sounds on Portland’s K103fm radio dial.
You’ve likely heard Williams if you’ve spent much time in the Rose City. After all, he has been on the rock radio scene since 1977.
But interestingly, when the radio studio goes quiet, there’s another sound that Williams would rather hear – the sounds of the wild!
John Williams likes to be where the flocks are; it’s a passion that he’s owned since he was a kid.
“I was always full steam ahead,” noted the radio broadcaster on a recent trip to William Finley Wildlife Refuge near Corvallis, Oregon. “A normal childhood and I tried everything and even some things I shouldn’t have,” he said with a hearty chuckle.
John had polio as a child – he didn’t walk until he was four – but his family and their northwest adventures always made Williams feel right at home – whether in leg braces or in a chair – the polio never slowed him down.
“I wanted to be able to compete so I started playing wheelchair sports like wheelchair basketball when I was 14. I played that until I was 50 – but two shoulder surgeries told me it was time to get off the basketball floor.”
But outdoor adventures like fishing, hunting and boating came easy to someone eager to explore a love for the northwest outdoors.
Recently, Williams figured he could do more to help others too fearful to head outdoors.
He produces a new TV program called “Wheelchair Destinations.”
“I wanted to actually show people how accessible a destination is! There are
plenty of web sites, plenty of books that talk about it, but no one has actually shown people how accessible a place really is when you get to it.”
So far, he has compiled 26 3-minute segments that center on places and activities for folks who roll on wheels rather than walk on two legs.
His travels and specialty reports have taken Williams from the Oregon coast to the Cascade Mountains and include a visit to famous Timberline Lodge to find how just how accessible the old lodge is for folks in wheelchairs.
“Even I didn’t realize how accessible a place it is,” said Williams. “They’ve done some exceptional retro-work up there: parking lots are very accessible and you can go in on the bottom floor thru wide automatic doors. They’ve retrofitted with elevators, but they’ve not changed the integrity of the original building and I think that is very important.”
He’s visited many prized local sites and critiques them too, offering a visual story of the good, the bad and the not so friendly wheelchair access.
For example, Williams takes viewers to the popular Portland destination at Washington Park Rose Garden:
“You actually see me huffing and puffing up a hill and if you see that on video, see what I’m going through, then you will have a good idea of what to expect and help you decide whether you want to go there yourself.”
Williams gave high marks to the recent retrofit of the famous Oregon State Park Vista House – for many it is considered the gateway to the Columbia River Gorge:
“They have installed an elevator to take you from the bottom floor to the top floor but you don’t see the machinery at all when you enter - it comes out of the floor! It was truly engineered properly and hasn’t destroyed the integrity of the original building. I think they did a terrific job!”
Williams noted that there are other notable travel destinations across Oregon that are wheelchair friendly too.
For example, explore the North Fork Nehalem River’s Disabled Angler Platform where salmon and steelhead are always on the bite.
Or the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument where you will find a raised wooden boardwalk that allows folks a close up view to 60 million years of geologic history.
Finally, check out the Wildwood Recreation Site’s Cascade Streamwatch Trail. The paved path takes you along the Salmon River for more than a mile and even puts you nose to nose with baby salmon in a tributary stream near Mt Hood.
Back at Finley Wildlife Refuge, John and I enjoyed the Homer Campbell Memorial Trail: a 1700’ elevated boardwalk that courses through an oak and wetlands area and eventually ends at a view blind. Here, you can duck in out of bad weather and the blind overlooks a pond that is favored by waterfowl and eagles.
“They’ve done a real good job out here with a cement apron in the parking area that makes the wheelchair rolling easier and connects to the boardwalk that takes you clear out to the marshland. It’s very impressive. You’ll have no problem in a wheelchair – it’s good stuff!”
Williams adds that Oregon and especially Portland lead the nation in accessibility…that’s something more people in chairs should embrace:
“I really want to show folks what a beautiful part of the country we live in so they will get out of the living room and head out for travel across Oregon.”
THE LAST WILD RUN
The Last Wild Run is in the middle of nowhere and so you work up a sweat to reach it.
It’s not an Olympic event, but it feels that way in steep, rocky country where one mis-step or a slip can cost you.
There are no major roadways, no highways not even a gentle country road to reach where the the last wild run lives.
It’s inaccessible to the extreme and so you might consider Ian Fergusson something of a long distance champion at what he does each week for three months each spring.
He hikes up to fifteen miles a day and peers into the North Fork for the Salmonberry River.
“From the landslides you have to climb over and the road washouts you must dodge, it’s not an easy stroll by any means, noted Fergusson.
He keeps tabs on something truly special for the Oregon Dept of Fish and Wildlife in the remote Salmonberry River Basin.
The river roars through the cleft in the ancient basalt rock in a heart-pounding moment and the wild steelhead are here too - swimming and jumping one after another.
“These are wild steelhead and what they do is really an athletic event and just an amazing spectacle to watch these fish jump one after the other.”
The North Fork of the Salmonberry is a river full of foamy falls and the fish must jump to survive.
It is the only way they can reach the safe water to spawn and yet somehow the wild steelhead’s parents must have survived to spawn. We can count their successes – one after the other.
Steelhead are often called the 'street fighters' of the salmon world because they have to swim to the furthest, highest ends of the watershed and endure the toughest conditions that mother nature serves up.
“I just love this system and these fish,” said Fergusson with a beaming smile. “These fish are just so special to me. I used to fish the Salmonberry River a lot – but I don’t even do that anymore. I just come here just to count and watch these fish.”
It is remarkable that the fish are even here!
The Salmonberry River Canyon is gigantic, but half a century ago it was destroyed when the successive Tillamook Burns devastated the canyon forest beginning 80 years ago.
“Year and years of erosion and silt washing into the river,” noted Fergusson. “No cover on the stream banks, much of it burned off and yet these fish managed to hold on during that period."
The fish not only held on; they thrived.
More impressive is the fact that there’s never been a hatchery on the river, so the last wild run of salmonberry steehead are truly rare.
You can count on one hand the number of Oregon streams that have them.
These days, the fish are protected by rules that allow catch and release angling in the main stem, but prohibits all angling in the tributaries.
Fergusson not only counts the fish that jump for survival, but he counts the “redds” or nests that the female steelhead gouges out of the gravel with their tails.
“It’s a light colored area – much lighter than the surrounding substrate and the eggs are buried right there,” he added.
Still, for all its remoteness, logging is nearby and clear cuts are closing in on other nearby canyon walls.
That activity worries Fergusson and gives him even more motivation to collect data for the state’s fish agency that hasn’t the regular manpower to dedicate to such a distant river.
“We really count on volunteers like Ian,” said Chris Knutsen, the ODFW District Fish Biologist. “He and his friends who come in here regularly and help by telling us what’s going on in the watershed.
He has a good handle on the biology, the ecology of north coast watersheds and he has a lot of valuable information to share. Clearly, he’s demonstrating that he cares about the resource.”
“I guess it’s because I wanted to help do something with the management of the resource, noted Fergusson. “These fish are very resilient and they have endured for many, many years and we hope they can keep doing it. If we do all we can to protect the places that are special, then maybe they can hang on.”
The volunteer fish counters want to make sure the Salmonberry River remains one of those streams.
“This is what I really love to do,” added Ferguson. “This - to me - is recreation. I come out here all day, slogging around in streams and counting fish, counting their redds, then I hike up here and watch this - this is just recreation for me. It's just astounding.”
For more information on how to volunteer on the Salmonberry River Steelhead project you can contact Northwest Steelheaders, Trout Unlimited or the Native Fish Society.
You can also call Oregon Dept of Fish and Wildlife STEP coordinator in the Tillamook office of ODFW @503-842-2741.
HORSENECKS, QUAHOGS AND STEAMER CLAMS
Oregon’s springtime super low tides are the best because that’s a time when the dinner table is set.
Mitch Vance, Shellfish Biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that any of the really good low tides during daylight hours provide ample opportunities to harvest Oregon’s varied bay clam species.
“Some folks like to get out as early as possible and have more digging opportunity; they follow that tide as it goes out, looking for new exposed areas and then work back as the tide turns to flood.”
Norm and Bonnie Clow recently traveled to Tillamook Bay from their home in Dayton, Oregon.
They were among the first early risers to explore the exposed sand and gravel bars on a sunrise clamming adventure.
The Clow’s have been digging their dinner on the bay for more than sixty years and said the 4a.m. wake up call was “no big deal!”
Best advice for the novice clam digger?
“Keep digging,” Clow said with a chuckle. “Usually, the clams are thick enough that if you dig one hole and excavate out, you will have little problem harvesting a limit.”
April, May and June each provide many super low minus tides that occur early in the morning.
This is the favored time for digging bay clams with names like horsenecks, quahogs, steamers and cockles.
Jeff Folkema, a local guide and the owner of Garibaldi Marina, showed off a half dozen of the prized horseneck clams that he harvested from the bay.
He said they are called “gaper” clams because of the “gape” in the shell where the neck pokes through.
“This is a nice size,” he said while handling a hefty 2-3 pound grapefruit-sized bivalve. “This is pretty average size with a lot of meat. A good sized clam but I have seen much bigger too.”
Jeff added that clam diggers 14 years and older are required to purchase an Oregon Shellfish License.
“And remember that each person who is harvesting clams must have their own container – a bucket or a clam net on their belt – even a plastic bread bag will do – because you cannot lump other people’s clams into your container – you’ll get a ticket for that.”
Keep your eyes open for ODFW placard that show pictures of the different clams species along with the harvest limits and other regulations.
Vance offered: “If you’re digging it really helps to know what you’re after so you can understand the regulations around that species.”
He added that abundant food, reliable cold, clean water contribute to perfect habitat for bay clams populations in most of Oregon’s coastal estuaries.
There is also a delicious reward for the clam digger’s efforts – bay clams can be delicious according to local resident Don Best who showed off his limit of quahog clams.
One of his all time favorite recipes is an old-fashioned clam fritter:
“All it takes is a little cracker crumb, flour and egg – perhaps some chopped onion. Chop up the clams, mix them with the batter and fry them in a skillet with oil. They are awesome that way!”
Vance added that in addition to supper from the sea, digging bay clams can provide hours of family fun for each member of the family: “Oh, it is really good for families because it’s so easy and there’s not a lot of gear – just a shovel or a rake – so get the kids in some boots and get them out here and have some fun in the sand.”
Don Best’s Clam Frittter Recipe
1 cup unsifted flour and a half cup of bread crumbs
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup milk
2 cups chopped clams
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
In deep fat fryer or large heavy skillet, heat oil to 375 degrees.
Sift together flour, baking powder and salt; set aside.
In medium mixing bowl, beat egg, milk, 1/4 cup reserved clam liquid and 1 tablespoon oil.
Stir in dry ingredients and clams. Drop mixture by heaping tablespoonfuls into hot oil.
Fry until golden on all sides. Drain on paper towels.
Refrigerate leftovers. Makes about a dozen fritters.